Valerie Bertinelli finds freedom in the kitchen


Four years ago, when Valerie Bertinelli turned 60, a switch flipped. The years preceding that birthday had been defined by dietary abnegation: policing calories, frowning at the digits she saw on the scale, chasing purity at the expense of pleasure.

“What wasn’t working for me was living my life by a number,” Bertinelli, who turns 64 later this month, told me one day this February as she sat in her home in Los Angeles. “Because no matter what that number was, it wasn’t going to be good enough.”

Get the recipe: Braised Chicken Thighs With Kumquats and Spiced Honey

Indulge,” the actress and food personality’s third cookbook (out this month from Harvest), is a rejection of the restriction that had been dominating her life. The title of the book is as much an invitation as it is a reclamation of what some finger-waggers would have you believe is a dirty word.

“Why can’t we indulge every flipping day of our lives?” Bertinelli said. (She has a charming tendency to alternate between dropping f-bombs and using their airwave-friendly substitutes). “We only have one of these.”

The book’s recipes are unrepentantly joyous: There’s a vegetable galette with a painterly rainbow of produce, white chocolate chip cookies with bursts of lemon and lime. She takes the kumquats blooming on a bush in her backyard and braises them with chicken on the stove, where the fruit’s bitter flesh mellows against the heat, coaxing the sweetness from their rind.

For Bertinelli — a sitcom star turned mainstay of the Food Network, where she was the host of such shows as “Kids Baking Championship” and “Valerie’s Home Cooking” for a total of eight years — “Indulge” arrives after a time rocked by losses and absences. Her first husband, the musician Eddie Van Halen, died in 2020; a painful divorce from her second husband, the businessman Tom Vitale, was finalized in 2022. The essays bridging these recipes are meditations on healing and forgiveness. The book that resulted from this trying period is her way of working through, and finally silencing, “the same stuff that’s been going through my head my entire life,” she said.

Having grown up in a peripatetic family thanks to her auto executive father’s job at General Motors (“I call myself the GM Brat,” she quipped), Bertinelli began acting when she was 12, learning the heartbreak of rejection early. “I think I went on 99 to 100 interviews before I got my first commercial,” she said. “That can really mess with a kid’s head.”

Her break came in 1975, when the showrunner Norman Lear decided to reshoot the pilot for the sitcom that would become “One Day at a Time” (1975-1984). As the younger of two daughters to a divorced single mom, Bertinelli’s Barbara Cooper was the picture of precocity, displaying her rapier wit in zippy one-liners.

In a performance that would win her two Golden Globes and make her a household name, Bertinelli aged before America’s eyes over the course of the show’s nine-season run. “One Day at a Time” was “my college, I like to call it,” she said. “Because I was in the college of learning how to socialize with adults. My college of learning how to do a craft I wanted to learn.”

Fame also brought Bertinelli into the orbit of her rock star first husband, whom she married in 1981, when she was just 20. Bertinelli’s Indonesian mother-in-law (whom she still calls “Mrs. Van Halen”) introduced her to the cornucopian wonders of such salads as gado-gado and the fluffy banana fritters known as pisang goreng, far from the pork chops and strawberry rhubarb pies Bertinelli’s English-Irish mother had weaned her on. “All these things that I’d never heard of,” she said. “And they’re un-flipping-believably delicious.” (Sambal, a condiment popular in Indonesia, features heavily in “Indulge.”)

Despite cooking’s prominence in Bertinelli’s life, not even she can make sense of what motivated her to transition into food after years of acting: ​​“Who the f— knows?” she said, laughing. Her first cookbook, 2012’s “One Dish at a Time,” came from her desire to share the culinary knowledge that her Italian grandmother and the other women in her family had impressed upon her.

But her food television career began in earnest in 2015. The TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland,” in which she had a starring role, came to an unceremonious end after five years. (She still doesn’t understand that decision, by the way: “I don’t know how you have Betty White as the star of your show and you cancel it,” she said. “Like, are you insane? You can see I’m not still bitter about it.”) The same year an offer came to host “Kids Baking Championship” on the Food Network.

Thus began Bertinelli’s second chapter as a television cook, a path she didn’t intend to walk — but for her fans, the leap seemed logical.

Seeing Bertinelli pop up on food television was “heartwarming,” said Kathleen Collins, author of 2009’s “Watching What We Eat,” a history of food television in America, in an email. Collins had grown up watching Bertinelli on “One Day at a Time” and was infatuated with her, admiring and relating to the misunderstood kid she saw on screen. Watching Bertinelli on the Food Network made Collins feel as if Barbara Cooper had grown up and was still showing women of her generation the way. “Her youthful energy is the same as it ever was, and it’s a natural for food TV,” Collins said.

Get the recipe: Braised Chicken Thighs With Kumquats and Spiced Honey

Though food television has long been dominated by megawatt personalities — see Julia Child, Martin Yan and Graham Kerr — the turn of the millennium marked an even more seismic shift toward character-driven cooking shows, Collins noted, making Bertinelli an obvious fit for the genre. While interviewing Food Network executives for “Watching What We Eat,” Collins found that they prized affability above all else. “Valerie has that warm, engaging, down-to-earth and relatable way about her that is exactly what those execs and what the viewers want,” Collins said.

Even as she had a high-profile gig on the Food Network, though, Bertinelli found that her relationship to food became fractious over the years because of the stressors of her personal life. Her self-image started to corrupt. When people made snide comments about her weight, she found herself agreeing with them.

She started realizing that she was using food to gauze a deeper and untended-to pain, too, as if she were playing a game of emotional whack-a-mole. “And if I try to push it away, shove it away, eat it away, the feeling’s not going to go anywhere,” she said of that time. “It’s going to pop up again.” She was relying on premade meals — frozen pizzas, grocery store sushi — and barely cooking.

Then, she snapped herself into cognizance, realizing she’d had enough.

“​​​​It’s not the food that’s bad for us,” she said of her epiphany. “It’s how, or why, we’re eating it. If we’re eating it unconsciously, if we’re eating it to soothe an emotion.”

With its embrace of maximalism and comfort, “Indulge” is part of a recent pushback in food publishing against rigorous self-discipline and abstinence.

“Well, the pressure to ‘just get on Ozempic’ (as though it were financially, logistically or physically easy) has definitely heightened the stakes, but I see this cultural moment of semi-rejection of diet culture norms as being long overdue,” said Emma Specter, author of the forthcoming “More, Please,” a book on binge eating disorder out from Harper in July, in an email.

Specter is frustrated by what she terms “faux-progressive diet and ‘wellness’ brands” taking down to consumers. The weight-loss industry in America, too, grew to nearly $90 billion in 2023, a figure that analysts expect to rise this year. “We deserve better as a society, and I’m glad that’s becoming less controversial to say,” Specter said.

For Specter, it took time to see her relationship to food as “something anchored by enjoyment, not shame,” as she put it. “I love the idea of Valerie’s cookbook helping someone else to initiate that self-work.”

The process is ongoing for Bertinelli herself, she admits. Her time with the Food Network came to an end last year after her contract expired, much to the chagrin of her battalion of devotees on social media, though she is unfazed. (“Business is business,” she said, diplomatically.) Now, she dreams of one day fusing her two careers into one — maybe playing a cookbook author or chef in a sitcom. Bertinelli knows she’s been lucky; starring in two beloved sitcoms is a rare experience. Most actresses don’t even get to take part in one.

“But,” she said, “I’ll never stop cooking.”

Mayukh Sen is the James Beard Award-winning author of “Taste Makers” (2021) and the forthcoming biography of the actress Merle Oberon, “Love, Queenie” (2025).


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